Wednesday, 19 September 2018
THE GREAT SEA DRAGON DiSCOVERY by Pippa Goodhart. Reviewed by Adèle Geras
Pippa Goodhart is one of the writers I call The Reliables. They're the ones whose name on the cover says: don't worry, you're safe with me. I know exactly what I'm doing. My usual disclaimer here: Pippa is a friend and I've known her for decades and you will have to trust my honesty when I say I would never recommend a book I didn't enjoy. My life is too short to read books I don't like, let alone write about them. But even though I've known her for a long time, and knew that she'd been no slouch where writing books for children was concerned, a short visit to her website was an eye- opener. She has been hugely productive and versatile and is the author of such real favourites as YOU CHOOSE and YOU CHOOSE IN SPACE and the Winnie the Witch books, as well as historical novels for somewhat older children.
This book is one of those. It's the very model of what a historical novel for children should be. There's a duty to tell a good story, first and foremost. As in every other novel, you need sympathetic characters, a plot that bowls along at speed. All novels benefit from knockout emotional punches along the way, together with a good few surprises. This book has every one of these elements in abundance.
The other thing a historical novel needs is, of course, history. Novelists who write such books for children have a secondary intention: they have to provide some real facts, some true historical knowledge which will add to the store of information the child possesses. Again, Goodhart is generous. We end the novel (and I have to confess that I am including myself in this. I'm very ignorant about these things) knowing an awful lot more than I did at the beginning. And since I live in Cambridge I am going to take myself off to the Sedgwick Museum very soon to see all the 'true things' for myself.
The historical layer of the novel concerns the discovery in Grantchester of remains of an ichthyosaur during the 19th century diggings for coprolites. These were ground up and used for fertiliser in the land around the village. A postscript helpfully provides everything you need to discover what and who are real people and who is a character from the writer's imagination. It's wonderful to have this postscript, but while you're reading the book, distinguishing what's true and what isn't is the furthest thing from your mind.
You are caught up in the story from the very beginning when Bill Ellwood is in his classroom, watching a daisy turn blue from being stuck into an inkwell. He's our hero. I find it hard to outline a plot without giving away surprises the author didn't intend any reviewer to reveal, but during the course of this novel, Bill endures hardship, separation, violence, exhilaration, shocks and discoveries of every sort and by the end has undergone several kinds of transformation. His many relationships: to his parents, to his friends, especially Alf, to the other villagers, to the wonderful Mr. Seeley (who is a kind of real -life fairy godfather) are wonderfully delineated. Minor characters such as Mrs Coddle (a midwife who makes you gasp and close your eyes in horror) and Mrs Buckle, the vicar's wife and Miss Snelling the teacher are described with great humour and affection. It's a crowded canvas, teeming with events and people and discoveries and does not gloss over the dark side of life. We read of pain, poverty, hardship and deprivation as well and Goodhart explains every situation clearly and sympathetically. But there is joy for Bill in the story too, and enjoyment of small pleasures. This novel encompasses all of those things.
The new school term is just starting. I urge teachers to buy a copy of this for their school bookshelves. I hate categorising books by their suitability for this age of child or that. Anyone over about nine would love this story. Do buy it and read it. It would make a fantastic family book to read together....I loved it.
Published by Catnip in paperback. £6.99
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